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Experts: Vietnamese Parents Could Stem Youths’ High Depression Rates

Posted: Apr 02, 2012

Photo courtesy of Project MotiVATe, a Southern California program mentoring Vietnamese teens.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.—Christopher Nguyễn had recently been treated in the hospital for depression before shooting and killing his older brother while he slept last Nov. 29, according to a Los Angeles police report. Then Nguyễn, 26, turned the gun on himself.

Although Nguyển’s family declined to requests for an interview about their son’s murder-suicide and his depression, Orange County, Calif., mental health professional and Vietnamese American community volunteer Suzie Dong Matsuda said young adults are the most vulnerable population in trying to complete their suicidal acts.

“When they really want to, they make sure they succeed,” she said, adding that depression comes in various stages from mild to moderate to severe.

Generational, Cultural Factors

Like all concerned parents, those in Vietnamese families may feel confused and helpless when facing depressed behavior as their children reach their teens and beyond. But experts say that those from Vietnam may be able to learn from factors stemming from both generational and cultural differences between parent and child.

University of Washington sociologist David Takeuchi, who has studied depression among Vietnamese American and other Asian communities in the United States, noted that although suicide research falls short of showing a connection between depression and suicide among younger Asian Americans, there might be a link.

He added that Asian Americans who were born in the United States or who immigrated to this country before age 18 tend to show higher depression rates than those who emigrate here later in life.

Among possible reasons for the higher depression rates, Takeuchi said, U.S. born or younger immigrant Asian Americans might handle real or perceived discrimination differently than older immigrants.

Those arriving in America at older ages tend to anticipate discrimination. They don’t like it, Takeuchi explained, but take it more in stride than younger immigrants. They even considered being treated differently than others to be “part of the package” when coming to U.S., while the younger immigrants and those born here might expect to be treated like other people their age with an equal claim to the American Dream, he continued.

Along with discrimination based on stereotypes attached to physical appearance or language differences, “positive” stereotypes, such as those labeling younger Asian Americans as “overachievers,” can actually contribute to depression, Takeuchi added.

That kind of label carries very high expectations, and the younger Asian Americans sometimes stop at nothing to meet them.

Higher Levels of Teen-Parent Conflicts

Clinical psychologist Anna Lau, of the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that that cultural and generational differences between Vietnamese American teens and their parents also can be a source of depression.

Lau is conducting a study related to stress and mental health among Vietnamese American teenagers in Orange County and San Jose, Calif. She said that when compared to their European American counterparts, Vietnamese American teens report higher levels of conflict with their parents. They say their parents often are very restrictive and controlling.

There are different ways to monitor children’s behavior, Lau continued. Teens generally see parents who ask about their teenagers’ behavior--instead of starting the conversation by condemning behavior--as more supportive and parents who show interest and sympathy can be more instrumental in protecting their children from mental distress.

Like other parents, she added, Vietnamese American parents only want what is best for their children. They should recognize that “there are a lot of things going right” in the lives of Vietnamese American youths, she said.

For example, she went on, many Vietnamese American teens can maintain good grades and stay out of trouble even when under considerable stress.

However, if parent feels their teen begins acting differently than usual, such as being less compliant or more irritable, it may help if they move beyond feeling annoyed or disrespected, she added.

A lot of Vietnamese American teens would be very surprised, refreshed and feel supported, she said, if instead of becoming upset about their behavior, their parents took some time to listen and show concern.

Vanessa White, a staff writer for Viễn Đông, wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Her intergenerational series also includes “Vietnamese Elders Struggle With Depression Years After War," and “Historical, Generational Trauma Haunt Vietnamese Seniors in U.S." 

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